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Scott Cawelti performs James Hearst's poems, which he put to music, at the Hearst Center for the Arts on Saturday, May 1, 2010, in Waterloo, Iowa. (RICK TIBBOTT/ Courier Staff Photographer)

CEDAR FALLS --- "Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music." --- Ezra Pound

"The worn familiar doorknob reaches out to his hand/ and the house draws him in." --- James Hearst

Once he got those poems in his head, he couldn't stop thinking about them.

So Scott Cawelti, a retired University of Northern Iowa professor, regular Courier columnist and editor of "The Complete Poetry of James Hearst," decided he'd set some of the poetry of the late philanthropist James Hearst to music.

"I know the poems real well --- I edited that James Hearst book, I got to know them years ago," Cawelti said. "A way long time ago when I was singing in bars, I wrote one of them, 'The Movers.' I thought it was a nice poem."

After "The Movers," Cawelti wrote instrumentation for another Hearst poem, "Truth." Both began resonating with Cawelti's audiences.

"I got a lot of support from various people," he said. "I wondered if I could turn this into something."

To Cawelti, who was already teaching James Hearst in his literature classes at UNI, it seemed another Hearst project was begging to be done. Once he retired, that's exactly what he did.

The result is "Landscape Iowa," a 16-track album featuring Cawelti on vocals and acoustic guitar and backed by several Cedar Valley musicians.

A CD release party is set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls.

Each of the 16 tracks is a separate Hearst poem, like the eponymous "Landscape --- Iowa," "Hog Economy" and "After the People Go."

Some poems, because of their meter or rhyming, lend themselves more easily to melodies, Cawelti noted. Others are tougher.

"Straight, free-verse poems are a little trickier," Cawelti said. "'Snake in the Strawberries' is pretty much free verse; that was the most difficult to write by far, just because it's so irregular."

Another difficult part was putting instrumentation to it. Cawelti worked with producer and engineer Tom Tatman at Catamount Studios in Cedar Falls for about three months, rounding up everyone from violinists to oboe players to Bob Dorr on harmonica.

"This was really a creative process from the beginning," Tatman said. "(Musicians) may have heard the song, maybe not, but certainly nobody had any parts (written) when they came in. We would experiment with things until we found something that would work."

Born in 1900, Hearst began writing poetry shortly after a diving accident left him partially paralyzed, and he wrote more than 600 poems over several decades until his death in 1983.

His poems evoke the regionalist movement of the 1930s (popularized by the artwork of Grant Wood) that depicts and often glorifies farm life and simple living.

"The people come back to the poetry because the songs give them new life," Cawelti said. "It's just good poetry. It's really memorable. It says stuff that's really universal."


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